Three kinds of students take Kristin Bezio’s Leadership on Stage and Screen, a Jepson School of Leadership Studies course: those who intentionally seek it out because of its community-based-learning theater project, those who are surprised but energized by the project, and those who are surprised and a bit wary of Shakespeare.

Benjamin Kornegay, ’17, is the last.

“I thought [the course] was going to be exclusively about movies and television and how they affect leadership roles,” Kornegay said.

Instead, he found out that he and his classmates would choose a Shakespeare play, divide into groups to cover each of its five acts, and then direct a group of middle and high school students who would perform together at the end of the semester. This past fall, students chose to perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Although Kornegay volunteers regularly at St. Andrew’s School through the Bonner Scholars Program, he enjoyed this opportunity to work with a new group of students at St. Joseph’s Villa, a Richmond Families Initiative community partner, in a creative way through the Leadership on Stage and Screen course.

“It showed me how art has a huge effect on society as a whole,” Kornegay said. “Using that to teach kids a little more about the world was very cool. You can relate something that was written over 400 years ago to what they’re experiencing now.”

Kornegay and his classmates faced the challenge of getting a group of teens who were as suspicious of them as they were of Shakespeare to fully engage in the project. Oliver Lee, ’16, quickly realized it was essential to build trust within his group at the Youth Life Foundation of Richmond, a community partner of the Build It neighborhood-based civic-engagement program.

“The first meeting was rough,” Lee said. “It took my partner and me a little bit to get their trust and focus, because the last thing they wanted to be doing was reading a Shakespeare play. After read-throughs, playing basketball with them was the most effective way for them to get to know me. And having them get to know me was the best way to gain their trust and accomplish what we needed to do for the play.”

For Bezio, the struggle is all part of the plan.

“Doing a long-term, large-scale project in an unfamiliar area teaches them a lot about what they’re actually capable of doing,” she said. “At the end of the course, they did a whole play. Taking on that risk teaches them about adaptability.”

Inspired by Curt Tofteland’s Shakespeare Behind Bars, Bezio hopes her class project teaches her students about inequities in the American education system and the importance of art and entertainment as common cultural bridges.

“At its core, Jepson is about engaged citizenship,” Bezio said, “so making them actually engage as citizens is important. I want them to stop thinking about entertainment as entertainment. This stuff matters. Getting them to make it matter is more effective than just telling them that in class.”

Molly Rossi, ’16, sought out the course specifically for the kinds of challenges and lessons Bezio builds in. An interdisciplinary studies major who is currently writing her senior thesis on cross-cultural communication, Rossi has a passion for the arts as a mode of communication that can overcome boundaries and trauma.

“It was really powerful to see how impactful the messages are in creative forms of communication—plays, literature, films,” Rossi said. “How important they are socially, how they can force us to critique ourselves and our environments, how they influence politics and social justice movements, and how they gave our students a voice and outlet to be their creative selves and be part of something that they had to be really devoted to.”

Rossi, Lee, and Kornegay have their own stories about something that went terribly wrong on the day of the performance and how they adapted. They also have stories about something that went unbelievably right: a student who took total ownership of her role, a student who read his lines perfectly and with gusto, a student who played two parts when another student couldn’t make it.

Their pride and self-confidence shine through when they talk about the highs as well as the lows, appreciating the adaptability that Bezio hoped they would learn. Through their experiences on stage, they learned a great deal about Shakespeare and how to lead.

Photo: Dr. Kristin Bezio teaches Leadership on Stage and Screen at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.